Thursday, 22 November 2012

The most important event of the wine century so far



For Slotovino the most important event of the century so far is the publication of "Wine Grapes, a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours" by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz (Alan Lane, 1,242 pp) on October 29th, 2012.

In its way this book is the equivalent to Diderot's Encyclopedie, Johnson's Dictionary or Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. It is astonishing that the three authors have been able not only to amass the staggering array of facts concerning the origins, parentage and viticultural characteristics of every grape known to be involved in commercial production throughout the world (and even some that are not) but to include almost in each case information on 'Where it's grown and what its wine tastes like'.


There is much besides. For the first time, family trees of incredible complexity show how many varieties have come into being and there are handsome illustrations of grape bunches too. The production is of a very high order and the design is outstanding. Unfortunately it has not been given to Slotovino ever to have laid eyes on Pierre Galet's classic 'Dictionnaire Encyclopedique des Cepages' much less having acquired a copy. There is literally no second-hand market in this previously most important publication on the subject of vine and grape varieties although M. Galet was kind enough to respond to a question as to whether we could expect a new edition by writing that one was planned for the end of this year.

Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz cite Galet frequently but one has the impression that scientific advances  since Galet's great work was published 10 years ago have left it in need of a good deal of updating. There have been very many new conclusions brought about by DNA tests in particular of course and Jose Vouillamoz has been at the forefront of these researches since his time at the Univerity of California, Davis.

In the FT Magazine shortly before publication, Jancis Robinson drives home the importance of Vine Varieties for once and for all. She made the following very fundamental point

"One of the most important differences between how wine is bought today and how earlier connoisseurs viewed it has been the rise and rise of grape varieties at the expense of geographical names. We now know wine as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir rather than as Chablis, Claret and Burgundy. Our wine-drinking forefathers would probably have been hard pushed to name a single grape variety, whereas many a wine list and supermarket aisle today is dominated by them." 

something we all knew but how trenchantly expressed and convincing at a time when there are still those in the wine world that would doubt the significance of varieties. We remember being told only recently that looking for wine by variety "n'est pas un critere, monsieur" (wine department, Galeries Lafayette, Paris).

It was irresistible to test the completeness of the book. For the first week, we scurried to the index with every obscure variety we had heard of only to be informed of its entry on page xxxx or to discover it was a synonym for something else. This in itself was an enormous pleasure; a rare instance of frustration leading to satisfaction! After numerous probes, we found a handful of possible omissions and following the invitation in the introduction to send these to contact@winegrapes.org and by return heard from Julia Harding herself that, together with Jose Vouillamoz most of our candidates could be dismissed on grounds that they were just mispellings of varieties already included or geographical names - not varieties. Nevertheless, we got a couple of names onto the list for possible inclusion in the next edition: Chanel Paradiso (or Paradisa), Rubienne and Vino del Soldato.

Julia was able to find Chanel Paradisa in Australia and sent us the link to Bago Vineyards whose site obligingly  includes the following information;

Chanel Paradisa (Pope’s Vine)
A rare white variety with an intriguing history but which is extremely difficult to produce mature grapes of quality. The fruit it yields is generally of a large size, and is similar in appearance to popular white table varieties.  We use this particular variety to produce a dessert style, in very small quantities.

Rubienne is a relatively recent hybrid also from Australia and according to Julia may be used for blending on a small scale. She will also look into Vino del Soldato which is one of several grapes used in Palari's Santa Ne (Etna).


On November 18th, we were privileged to attend Decanter's Masterclass on Grape Varieties at the Landmark Hotel in London. Arriving late, we were shown to a place next to Stephen Spurrier himself. As if this wasn't exciting enough, the room contained the actual discoverers of the identity of Zinfandel, two gentlemen from Croatia, Ivan Pejic

and Edi Maletic.


Their achievement is the vinious equivalent to finding the Rosetta Stone. Astonishingly the occasion was only the third time the three authors of "Wine Grapes" had ever been in the same room together.

Nine wines had been selected - three by each of the authors. We started with a Gouais/Gwaess from Valiais, Switzerland. What else given that this is, according to the panel the most important grape variety in Europe from a genetic point of view with 156 varieties descended or linked to it? We learned that in the middle ages, Gouais used to be planted around the vineyard so thieves would be deterred from stealing the crop, such was the low esteem in which it was held. Our sample was already familiar to us at Slotovino - not suprisingly as it is practically one of the very few commercially available (from Josef-Marie Chanton). Wine from Gouais is paradoxically bland and neutral given the variety's prolific sex life and prominent offspring. It was only in 1999 that Gouais' connections with so many other varieties was discovered by the way.

Next came a Vinho Regional Lisboa made from 100% Jampal, a name previously unknown to us. Given Portugal's rich catalogue of indiginous varieties this is not surprising and the pleasant character of Jampal was equally to be expected. Our example, Dona Fatima by Manz is the only wine produced from Jampal. The vine is very unproductive and as the Masterclass progressed we learned that there were a myriad other reasons why some varieties catch on and others don't.

In the third offering we were introduced to a white blend from the Plaimont co-operative consisting of 70% Gros Manseng, 20% of Petit Courbu and 10% of Arrufiac. The important news here was that uncommonly for a co-operative, Plaimont are interested in discovering and restoring local varieties. They have found many of these. In one half-hectare vineyard of 150 year old vines they discovered 20 different varieties, 7 of which were entirely unknown. It is thanks to them that Arrufiac has been rescued. Their name will be added to our Role Call of Honour of such vignerons who have saved worthy and threatened varieties.

The fourth offering was a delicios Godello from Valdeorras in North-West Spain. The wine was made by Valdesil and is called Pezas da Portela. Jancis Robinson informed us this example came from a bottle retailing at over £50 and it was certainly the classiest and best Godello we had ever tasted. The basic Godello from this producer called 'Monte Novo' may be found in Waitrose for not much more than £10. Godello is hardly a rarity these days but we were told that as recently as the 1970s, it was down to just a few hundred vines in Spain. The situation in Australia might have been different as it had been planted mistakenly as Verdelho. It has caught on not only due to its quality but because it is more productive than Albarino.

Jose Vouillamoz then introduced us to an Orange wine made from Nosiola by Foradori; a natural wine made in Amphorae with 8 months' skin contact after which we tasted a rarity from Santorini made from Mavrotragano. A dark powerful red from vines over 60 years old with small berries and thick skins, barrel fermented. Mavrotragano was previously used to make sweet red wines and was traind in an interesting basket form. Apologies were made for a certain dumbing-down of our wine (produced by Sigalas) but we were assured the strong personality of the grape was in evidence and we could certainly appreciate this. We decided to elevate Mavrotragano to the Slotovino Hall of Fame without delay.

We had always been intrigued by the American hybrid, Norton. Highly recommended in some quarters, Norton is also very interesting historically as it is one of the oldest hybrids to be discovered and occurred naturally. It's discovery in the early 19th century led to plantings in the USA on a quite large scale. An example won 1st prize at the Paris Exhibition later in the 19th century - quite an honour for a variety thought to have been descended from a Vitis Labrusca/Vitis Vinifera cross. Our sample came from Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia and had a backing of 9% Nebbiolo and 3% Petit Verdot. We were not quite as enthusiastic about Norton as some on the panel but just to taste it was worth the cost of the ticket to this event. Next came Okuzgozu, a red variety from Kavaklidere of Anatolya, Turkey. Jancis Robinson has been an admirer of Turkish wine in general and this variety in particular and so it was perhaps not surprising to find it here. Our personal opinion is that it is pleasant without having a very great personality.

The masterclass ended with an appropriate bang. Zlatan Crljenak was unfamiliar to us until it was explained that it was the same as Crljenak Kastelanski, the origin of both Primitivo and Zinfandel. (Primitivo we learned by the way is named not because the variety is primitive but because it is early-ripening). As mentioned the two discoverers of this fact, Pejic and Maletic were present and were invited to stand up and receive an ovation from the 100 or so participants. They had even traced this vine to the garden of an old lady who had told them the variety was known locally as Tribidrag and it is under this name that Zinfandel/Primitivo/Crljenak Kastelanski is listed in the book. Curiously, the name Zlatan Crljenak doesn't appear. Another name for the 2nd edition! (This last sentence is a misunderstanding but we have retained it because it is the subject of a kind correction by none other than Jose Vouillamoz below).


2 comments:

José Vouillamoz said...

Wow, thank you for this long praise for Wine Grapes!

Kudos for spotting Chanel Paradiso, Rubienne and Vino del Soldato. About the latter, I guess that we would need to do some DNA profiling to check its true-to-type identity because Azienda Palari do grow some obscure local varieties (Acitana, Galatena and Tignolino) that might turn out to be identical to some officially registered names. Btw their Santa Né cuvee is excellent!

Regarding your last sentence, please note that Zlatan Crljenak is not a variety’s name, it’s just a fantasy name for a Crljenak Kastelanski made by Zlatan Otok winery, owned by Zlatan Plenkovic.

Many thanks again

José Vouillamoz, co-author of Wine Grapes

Robert Slotover said...

Wow, a comment from the man himself! We are most grateful for the correction of our mistake concerning Crljenak Kastelanski. We hope you don't read any more of our blogs because that will keep you too busy with corrections to bring out a second edition of 'Wine Grapes'. Thanks.